Germany’s AfD conundrum

File photo of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

File photo of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

The grand coalition’s supposed neutrality may not be a credible strategy in a fragmented polity

Cracks are widening in the German establishment’s defences against the far-right. The resignation of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s heir, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, on February 10 as leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is the most profound convulsion to rock the party since the 2015 migrant crisis.

Crossing the line

Days earlier, the Christian Democrats’ local unit drew wide condemnation for seeking the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)’s votes in electing Thuringia state’s premier. The move, intended to block the return of the left-wing Die Linke after the inconclusive October regional election, was unprecedented in post-war German history. Soon after the polls, sections of the CDU pushed for the opposite outcome. The aim this time was to back Die Linke to return to office. That move too was rebuffed by the leadership. Earlier, in December, the governing coalition in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt came under strain when a CDU official’s links with neo-Nazis became apparent, forcing him to finally quit.

Allowing the AfD to play kingmaker in Thuringia caused outrage across the political spectrum. The CDU could not countenance an affront to its founding principle of propagating a social market economy to counter nationalism, even though the beneficiary was the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), its long-time ally. Chancellor Merkel described the election of FDP leader Thomas Kemmerich in Thuringia with AfD votes as “a bad day for democracy”. She said the outcome “has to be reversed” and criticised her party’s role as “unforgivable”. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose ratings have plummeted after her narrow victory as party chief in 2018, took the cue and bowed out.

The AfD is no less a taboo for the FDP. Mr. Kemmerich has since called for fresh elections. FDP national leader Christian Lindner, who initially justified the machinations, eventually promised a vote of confidence in his own leadership. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior partner in Ms. Merkel’s grand coalition, and the Greens, another potential CDU ally, would view even a slight swerve towards the far-right the ultimate red line.

The episodes in Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt have only exposed deepening divisions within the centre-right party. At the heart of the issue is the long-standing stance of maintaining equidistance from the extreme left and hard right. But such supposed neutrality may not commend itself as a credible strategy in Germany’s current fragmented polity, especially not after the steady erosion of the CDU and SPD base. Their vote share in the 2017 federal elections plunged to the lowest since 1949. Meanwhile, the stridently anti-Islam and anti-immigrant AfD emerged the largest opposition in the German parliament with 89 seats. The party is well represented in all the regions. The Bundestag’s March 2017 move to redefine the honorary title of “father of the house” to mean the longest-serving member rather than its oldest, only to block an AfD member, seems like another era.

A silver lining

One silver lining for the CDU-SPD is the finding that in western Germany, the AfD tends to win half the votes it takes in the eastern states. Eastern Germany still suffers from high unemployment, inequality, and poor public services. Greater investment to boost growth would be the antidote to the AfD’s anti-immigrant onslaught, not a rightward slant by centrists. If Germany’s ideological firewall needs a recast, the relevant direction seems obvious.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation has reopened the question of vesting the party leadership and the country’s chancellorship in the same person. Should the logic behind this argument be pursued, a snap election and a premature end to Ms. Merkel’s unbroken tenure from 2005 cannot be ruled out. The current uncertainty comes at an awkward moment, as Germany assumes in July the six-monthly rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. It is hoped that Germany will tide over this crisis.

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 4:41:25 PM |

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